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The Elites and the Tea Partiers

The Anti-Anti-Authoritarians

by SHELDON RICHMAN

I’m not a member of the Tea Party. For one thing, no coherent philosophy has emerged from its activities, which explains its grab-bag of positions, some good, some not so good. As a result, it’s not entirely clear what this collection of individuals fundamentally is for and against. Nevertheless, it is built around a concern that government and its “private sector” cronies wield an intolerable amount of power over our lives. They don’t like bank bailouts and health care bureaucracies, for example — so we can hope that it might evolve a consistent program in favor of voluntary association and against government intervention in our peaceful affairs.

It’s easy to point out flaws in the Tea Party. What is getting old quickly is the political elite’s criticism, which exhibits an intolerance and bad faith that it often attributes to the tea partiers. You don’t have to read too much of this criticism to see that the powers that be and their fawning admirers in the media and intelligentsia dislike one thing in particular: the movement’s apparent anti-authoritarianism. To be sure, at best it’s an imperfect anti-authoritarianism. For example, it doesn’t seem to extend to the military, despite America’s antimilitarist tradition and the fact that a major impetus for government control of the economy today is the national-security establishment! Other authorities — such as the ones responsible for the destructive “war on drugs” and the hounding of people who come to America without government permission —  have also escaped Tea Party wrath.

But let that go for now. What’s noteworthy is that the movement’s anti-authoritarian tone  has establishment statists so upset. They seem really worried that this thing could get out of control. Any legitimate criticism they may make of the Tea Party movement is undermined by their abhorrence with anti- authoritarianism per se. They are anti-anti-authoritarian.

“Streak of Anarchism”

“What’s new and most distinctive about the Tea Party is its streak of anarchism — its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent style of self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns,” Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate.  Note what’s first on Weisberg’s list.

“In this sense, you might think of the Tea Party as the Right’s version of the 1960s New Left. It’s an unorganized and unorganizable community of people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order.”

I’m happy to see Weisberg acknowledge that the established order is not individualist. The political elite typically pretends the current system is free (“deregulated”) and individualistic in order to justify the expansion of power. Here’s a rare concession that it is not.

The “most extreme” faction in Weisberg’s eyes “would limit the federal government to the exercise of enumerated powers.” (So much for anarchism.) For him, limiting government power to a finite set of explicit responsibilities would be an intolerable setback. (Not that the Constitution actually does that.) Imagine how he would react to a movement determined to uproot the corporatist State.

Likewise, Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, notes,

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses [!] that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic [that word again] like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that.

Note the phrases “estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century” and “petulant individuals.” Tea Party critics must enjoy this sort of psychological profiling. Tea Partiers are also frequently described as angry. As a common-sense description, there’s nothing objectionable about that. Who wouldn’t be angry after being pushed around by big institutions over which one has no real control? But notice that advocates of the all-State never describe their allies as angry when they vote out their rivals for power. I suspect that “anger” is just another arrow in the psychologizers’ quiver, as if to say, “No need to listen to that guy’s complaint. He’s just angry.” Weisberg says tea partiers have “status anxiety.” Don’t you need a license to make such a diagnosis?

Lilla adds that “we need to see it [the Tea Party] as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing — and unwarranted — confidence in the self.” (As opposed to a warranted confidence in the ruling class.)

He cites polls that show a majority of Americans don’t expect the government to act in their interest. They feel they have no voice in the halls of power. “As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.”

Oh the horror! Nothing offends the power elite as much as disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals. Do they fear that regular people might discover they can manage nicely without them?

The proof for Lilla is all the home-schooling going on! “What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves,” Lilla writes. Better, that is, than the experts who have delivered the “public education” system we suffer in myriad ways.

Lilla implies that these are atomistic individualists. But they’re not. They’re what I call “molecular,” or communitarian, individualists — that is, individuals cooperating with others to achieve what the politicians promise but can’t deliver.

Here, apparently, is the Tea Party’s greatest offense: it resents the elites who presume to run their lives. How dare these know-nothings resist our good intentions and earnest efforts?

As I’ve said, the folks who identify with the Tea Party are far from consistent about this. Some of the contradictions are stunning. Still, it’s revealing that their critics are so concerned that through the Tea Party, anti-authoritarianism, anti-elitism, and anti-corporatism appear to be on the rise.

The elitist critics can’t imagine a good reason for people distrusting big institutions that have wronged them. But whose problem is that? Is it really so hard to fathom why people would be angry at government and other institutions, such as banks and corporations, that derive what power they have from government? Only someone who finds power attractive would have a hard time understanding that.

Those who wish to run their own lives in mutual association with others have no trouble understanding it at all.

SHELDON RICHMAN is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) and editor of The Freeman magazine.